No Scoop for You

Jay Bevenour

When the business wings of the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post were fused earlier this year via a joint operating agreement, many observers predicted that competition between the news departments, left independent by the pact, would go the way of those dinosaurs not cute or scary enough to make it into any of the Jurassic Park movies. The following incidents, which took place prior to the News's August 11 publication of "Beyond the Mirror," by reporter Robert Sanchez, suggest that this worst-case scenario hasn't yet come to pass -- but they also raise intriguing questions about when papers should try to beat rivals to stories and when they should back off.

"Beyond the Mirror" tells the tale of Kelley Sperry, a Westminster ten-year-old who has Parry-Romberg syndrome, a little-known disease that has caused the partial deterioration of her face. As the introduction to Sanchez's story notes, the News learned about Kelley as the result of an e-mail sent out last spring by her mother, Donna Sperry, a fourth-grade teacher. But the intro failed to mention that this e-mail went not only to the News, but also to the Post and, according to Donna, "all the TV stations."

The News responded within minutes, with the TV outlets not far behind and the Post bringing up the rear, giving Donna and her husband, Jay Sperry, a Westminster firefighter, the luxury of choosing the organization with which they would share their family's painful experiences. The pair soon nixed television: "They wanted to put Kelley on the ten o'clock news that night -- and that's not what we wanted," Donna says. Besides, she got a good vibe from her meeting with Sanchez, who didn't respond to interview requests from Westword, and, she says, "I like the News better, anyway."

So the Sperrys told the Post no. Shortly thereafter, they received a letter from Post city editor Evan Dreyer in which he tried to convince them to reconsider their decision. "That didn't bother me," Sperry says. "The Post was very assertive, but that's good."

She was less thrilled about what took place next. Donna heard through the Internet grapevine that a reporter from the Post had contacted the Romberg's Connection Web site in search of other people in Colorado who had the disease. "I thought that was really tacky," she says. "When we wouldn't do it with them, they went behind the scenes to find somebody else. And since these other people they were trying to reach hadn't made the attempt to go public, it could have really hurt us. Romberg's Connection is our support, our lifeline, and we didn't want anybody who wanted their privacy to get angry at us, thinking the Post was calling because of us. It would have made us sick if that happened."

To make this point, Donna e-mailed everyone associated with Romberg's Connection. "I wasn't malicious about it. I just told them what the Post was trying to do and that I wasn't comfortable with it." She also e-mailed Allison Sherry, the Post reporter in question, "and said what I'd done, and said you really need to think about if this is the kind of reporter you want to be." Donna adds, "When she answered back, she was very polite. But she was probably irritated with me, because I kind of scolded her."

This reprimand must not have been too severe, because Sherry says she doesn't remember receiving such an e-mail, or replying to it. She also disputes Donna's assumption that the attempt to contact other local Parry-Romberg patients meant the Post was trying to get to a similar story ahead of the News, thereby undercutting what was sure to be a marquee piece. (More than two weeks after it appeared, "Beyond the Mirror" is still featured on the News's home page -- a sure sign that it will be a major entry in journalism contests. And why not, since the 2001 Pulitzer Prize in feature writing went to Tom Hallman Jr. of the Portland Oregonian for a profile of a disfigured fourteen-year-old boy?) "I wanted to find out more about the disease," Sherry says. "I was just curious at that point, just fishing -- and obviously, it's always good to talk to people in Colorado."

No matter what version of events is closest to the truth, the quest to be the first with Kelley's story has its distasteful elements, even if Kelley's own mother unwittingly set the competition in motion. ("We had no idea it would even be newsworthy," Donna says, explaining why she cast such a wide net.) News consumers expect media outlets to race each other over the uncovering of political corruption or the documentable charges of whistleblowers. But when they do the same thing for a story about children with facial deformities, they confirm the negative impressions many people have about the press in general. Even Donna wasn't surprised when she learned the Post was trying to contact others with Parry-Romberg after she'd signed up with the News. "I just figured that's what reporters do," she says.  

By the same token, the Post didn't continue to search the countryside for Parry-Romberg kids after being admonished by Donna, nor did it rush an article about the malady into print merely to undermine the News's feature. Yet Post city editor Dreyer admits to some discomfort over the competition. "Sort of a cliched statement in the newsroom is, 'This is still a war, and every bullet counts.' But it's still unfortunate that sometimes real people with real tragedies get caught up in the competitiveness of the news business. It's unseemly even to us to be in that position."

Post editor Glenn Guzzo takes no position about the actions of his employees regarding Kelley, having not heard about them until he was informed by Westword. But speaking in broad terms about the battle for exclusives, he notes, "We have our sights set on journalistic achievement, not just beating the Rocky, and we'll follow our own priorities... So are there situations where competition comes second or third on our list of priorities? Yeah."

As for Donna Sperry, she says she couldn't be happier about Sanchez's article. After the opus ran, the Sperrys received some unwanted calls and visits from supposed representatives of a medical company who promised cures that don't exist, but this unpleasantness was far outweighed by the affection and support that poured onto a message board on the News's Web site.

"The Post tried something, and we nipped it in the bud -- and I'm proud we nipped it in the bud," she allows. "Because almost everything else about this has been wonderful."

Name calling: Although Post editor Guzzo is relaxed and mellow while discussing the Kelley Sperry matter, he gets a wee bit defensive when the topic turns to the stadium-naming controversy. In an August 26 column, News media critic Greg Dobbs wrote about an e-mail he received from Guzzo citing two factual errors in a previous piece about the issue. (Dobbs corrected the errors but continued to disparage the decision.) Guzzo also takes a swing at yours truly regarding my views on the name game ("As the Web Turns," August 16). He objects strongly to a line in which I suggested that columnist Chuck Green's childish defense of the Post's policy to refer to Invesco Field at Mile High as the new Mile High stadium was more honest than the rationalizations offered by his bosses. To me, this reference is obviously an expression of opinion, but Guzzo thinks I accused him of lying -- which he does to me seconds later while complaining about my statement that the name policy has made the Post a laughingstock around the country. He points out that the paper has gotten a large amount of support for its position from average Joes as well as from big-name commentators such as Keith Olbermann, Frank DeFord and Mitch Albom. "You lied, Michael," he asserts.

Not in my opinion. "Laughingstock" is defined by Webster's as "an object of ridicule," which the Post undeniably has been in many quarters. Granted, the Post has been praised by a majority of those scribes who've expressed their opinions about the subject in print. But in almost all these cases, their compliments are predicated on the supposition that the Post is attacking the corporate naming of stadiums in general, which Guzzo says his paper is not doing.

As for the theory that the Mile High policy was influenced by previous editorials and by a spat between the Post and Invesco over a Woody Paige column that quoted an Invesco executive who said the facility looked like "a diaphragm," Guzzo denies it. "This was an independent decision," he says. "There was no consultation between me and the editorial-page staff, and no consultation with Woody Paige, who did not know it was coming. I recognize that the coincidence is just irresistible to folks, but there are still in my possession internal memos going back to May in which we're kicking around what we're going to call the stadium -- and Woody's Invesco column didn't show up until July 1."

He insists that the policy is "a matter of style that adopts the language of the people to the extent that what the people are doing is objecting to commercial encroachment on something that is regarded as a community value," adding that the only thing that's surprised him about the reaction to the Post's move "is how much of my time it's taken."

I'd promise not to mention the controversy from here on out, but if something comes up and I have no choice, I don't want to be accused of being a liar again. I prefer those other four-letter insults folks hurl at me.  

Meanwhile, Guzzo is also watching the progress of what he calls "early-retirement offers" -- although people in the Post newsroom are routinely referring to them as "buyouts." With the newspaper industry being squeezed hard by the wobbly economy, papers throughout the U.S. are making their employees these "offers," with the objective being to save money by replacing expensive, high-salaried older workers with less pricey younger ones.

That's certainly the case at the Boulder Daily Camera, which recently achieved significant budget bang with what Camera publisher Colleen Conant explicitly dubbed a buyout ("Out With the Old," June 7). But Guzzo insists that the Post's variation isn't motivated by the same goal. "There are no anticipated cost savings here, and no staff reductions," he says. In fact, Guzzo goes on, the Post just brought aboard Carla Johnson Kimbrough, who, as associate editor for staff development, will be deeply involved in recruiting journalists for a dozen new positions that Post owner Dean Singleton has said he wants filled within a year's time.

So is the Post doing all of this simply out of the goodness of its corporate heart? That's basically the line Guzzo sticks to. As he tells it, the Denver Newspaper Agency, which handles business for the Post and the News, came up with an early-retirement offer earlier this year (the DNA did want to reduce staff), and several newsroom employees "came forward and asked if they could participate." A few weeks back, after months of fiddling, the Post unveiled the proposal, which allows anyone age 52 or over who's been at the paper for a minimum of two years to receive an enhanced pension if they bow out, with some minor exceptions.

Insiders imply that the plan isn't rich enough to seduce anyone who wasn't already thinking about retiring into signing up. Nonetheless, at least three people have accepted so far. Bob Sheue, an eighteen-year Post vet in his mid-fifties who's been the travel editor for over five years, will leave at month's end: "I'm burning rubber even as we speak trying to get out of here," he jokes. "Maybe now I'll finally have time to travel." Also departing are longtime theater critic Sandra Dillard, who let a call from Westword go unreturned, and photographer Dave Buresh, ditto. Buresh was planning to retire in June, but sources say he was allowed to stick around a little longer in order to qualify for the retirement offer.

This last anecdote demonstrates an altruism that contradicts those who believe the Post is only interested in the bottom line -- and further evidence in favor of this possibility will accrue if experienced journalists, rather than recent J-school grads, are chosen to fill the aforementioned gaps. Let's wait and watch, shall we?

Revenge of the dot-coms: In 1983, Joe Rassenfoss joined the Rocky Mountain News as entertainment editor. Then, in 1997, years after moving to a position as assistant business editor, he split for what seemed like greener pastures: working as the producer of Denver Sidewalk, a locally based Web site owned by a little company called Microsoft. No way that could tank, right? Wrong. The whole operation went south in October 1999, leaving Rassenfoss in limbo. But now, after a stint with Word of Mouth, a Boulder software company that slimmed down this summer at the behest of worried investors, he's going back to the future: He's just been tabbed as (guess what?) entertainment editor for (guess who?) the News, replacing departing Karen Algeo Krizman. Rassenfoss, who returned on August 27, says he's looking forward to drawing upon the Internet knowledge he's gained over the past four years at his new/old gig: "It's fun to come back and work with people you know on something you love, and to have the ability to bring something else to the table."

Not that the News has turned a blind eye to computer technology. Last week, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals staged a publicity stunt in which a woman, Lisa Franzetta, wearing only a black bikini bottom and tiger-striped body paint, turned up in a cage on the 16th Street Mall -- and the News's article about it told readers that they could get a closer look on the paper's Web site via 360-degree photo technology. Don't click over there expecting a perverse jolt, though. The shot mostly provides a circular view of journalists such as the News's Mike Littwin.

Who, thank goodness, was fully clothed.

7 Solutions: Media-ethics courses are filled with scenarios in which journalists must decide how involved they should become with a story. Channel 7 news director Byron Grandy was faced with just such a situation on August 18 -- but in this instance, the decision was a snap.  

On that day, several hikers were stranded on Torreys Peak, near the Colorado town of Bakerville, and the Channel 7 helicopter was dispatched to get some footage. As it turned out, the chopper jockeys did more than that: They spotted the hikers before the men and women of the Clear Creek Sheriff's Department did. The people in the helicopter couldn't communicate directly with local authorities, but Channel 7 assignments editor Gabe Elizondo could -- and the assorted parties soon agreed that the helicopter would return to the station, where the footage shot would be immediately broadcast in an effort to help pinpoint the spot where the hikers were huddled. "We had them on the phone when we broke into programming," says Grandy, whose station is touting its actions in current promos. "In our introduction, we said we were alerting viewers to the situation but also trying to give the rescue folks an idea of where to find the hikers. And the rescue team watched the broadcast and said, 'Great, we know exactly where they are' and dispatched crews right away.

"There was no hesitation on our part to do it," he continues. "There are some situations that you've got to wrestle with, like letting cops go up in your helicopter to look for people. But this was an easy call."

In other Channel 7 news, the age-discrimination lawsuit filed against the station by reporter Dave Minshall ("Old News," May 3) has finally reached federal court. The trial is under way before U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer, who stepped in at the last minute for colleague Richard Matsch. Minshall says that at a mid-August attorneys' conference, Matsch, who's suffering from severe liver problems, explained that if he continued with the case, delays would be inevitable, since he was apt to get sick, be chosen for a liver transplant or die before its conclusion. Less than a week later, Matsch was hospitalized.

Minshall, however, is in fighting form. Among the reasons he was given for being fired was poor spelling, but he's found that the person and/or system handling closed captioning for Channel 7 isn't exactly a champ, either. He provides the following examples:

"Andrew Card," chief of staff to President George W. Bush, was shown as "Andrew Credit Card."

"Zoo officials didn't think he'd make it" became "Zoo officials didn't immediate headache it."

"Stay of execution" emerged as "Stay of accusation."

"...was a beauty" was transformed into "was butt yiismt."

You said a mouthful.

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